OPINION: ‘Stronger together’ works with China on human rights

Communities in Ecuador argued that the Chinese-owned Rio Blanco mining project violated their human rights (image: Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador)

OPINION: ‘Stronger together’ works with China on human rights

In the past year, communities looking for ways to engage Chinese businesses overseas have finally made some headway. Nonetheless, there must be significant further mobilisation. Affected communities in Asia can learn from Latin American groups by working together to reassert their rights.

China’s rights review

Ahead of a major UN rights review of China called the ‘Universal Periodic Review’ (UPR), Diálogo Chino ran an important piece focusing on the work of stakeholder groups across Latin America. Their joint submissions to the UPR, seven in total, represent the views of movements and civil society organisations who confront the negative impacts of Chinese investment in their communities.

Beyond pressing for critical domestic actions, such as a recent court decision in Ecuador halting Chinese-invested mining project Ecuagoldmining, the tenacious Latin American coordinators of this work increasingly demand that their own governments use international platforms and tools to urge China to hold its companies to account.

At the end of the review, it became clear that this coordinated civil society campaign had made important gains. Following pressure campaigns from civil society at the national level, the governments of Ecuador and Peru both recommended that China take steps, in law and policy, to ensure Chinese business operations are in line with both international human rights and host country laws.

Though there is a long way to go before they translate into results on the ground, it is likely China will accept a number of recommendations made at the UPR, having done so at its first UPR in 2009, and again in 2013. China will announce in March whether it will accept Peru and Ecuador’s recommendation.

Other States party to the session acknowledged key recommendations in the reports, including to focus on specific due diligence in high-risk or conflict areas (Palestine); and to extend relatively progressive domestic laws regulating business environmental impacts to operations overseas (Kenya).

Interestingly, this is not the only space in the international system where experts and civil society scrutinise the role of the Chinese government in regulating Chinese business overseas.

China committed to engage constructively in negotiations for a binding treaty on transnational corporations in October of this year. It agreed that “many stakeholders, including civil society representatives, have provided valuable and professional opinions and recommendations which we warmly welcome and to which we attach great importance”.

This commitment provides a critical opening, particularly given the conservative approach taken by the delegation to many of the substantive issues raised in the treaty negotiations.

On November 13, China even announced a new draft law on overseas assistance coordination which explicitly includes in its scope “interest-free loans and concessional loans”. A series of letters from UN experts looking at the impacts of Chinese companies abroad has begun to deepen dialogue with both the State and the private sector. Taken together, there seems to be an open policy door to push, both within and beyond the UPR.

Latin America’s response

The large number of Latin American submissions does not mean concerns are exclusively confined to the region. These are not the only governments considering how to manage the impacts of Chinese investments.

In fact, until now Latin America has arguably been less integrated in official Chinese investment and trade promotion policies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), than China’s immediate neighbours.

Aside from Chinese foreign ministry policy papers on Latin America released in 2008 and 2016, and the 2015-2019 CELAC-China Cooperation Agreement, only a few, relatively recent,  diplomatic memoranda have been inked cementing ‘south-south cooperation’ with the region.

This year, however, momentum has increased. In January, CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a political bloc) released a special declaration on the BRI and a number of countries, including Panama, Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador, Chile and Bolivia have inked bilateral agreements under the banner of the infrastructure initiative.

So what makes Latin American civil society’s response to Chinese projects different?

At the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), we work with rights defenders and civil society organisations globally as they consider using international tools to do their work. In our work on China’s UPR, one major difference emerges between the Latin American groups and others, especially in Asia: the ability to work in coalitions.

The sheer number, organising capacity and tenacity of Latin American groups meant that Chinese delegations in Geneva heard their calls loud and clear. Not only this, they received support in many cases from international groups such as CIVICUS and FIDH that helped to give visibility to their campaign.

Most importantly, many of those who participated in submissions from Latin America believed in the change. They have said that the UPR was an important chance to be heard by governments at the international level, when they haven’t had luck with their own.

In Asia, there is not a lack of information. Global media, and increasingly outlets in Asia, regularly cover stories of Chinese investments gone wrong or put or ice, such as the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, or a series of major infrastructure projects in Malaysia, respectively. In Myanmar, extensive negotiations on a China-Myanmar Economic Corridor were concluded earlier this year, as an explicit part of the BRI, despite contentious concerns about impacts on environment, livelihoods and displacement of local communities.

Civil society is also trying to add to the discussion. Submissions from Myanmar and Indonesia, important attention from Amnesty International and a cross-regional analysis of southeast Asia and Africa by ISHR, also informed the UPR process. Yet despite the significant focus on the impact of Chinese projects, Asian countries remained largely silent at the review. It is no longer enough to attribute this to Chinese pressure to stifle criticism.

In the Asian region, work in coalitions, across national, regional and international levels, remains a challenge. Defenders and activists in southeast Asia regularly say that there are few platforms for coordination, or limited opportunities to exchange experiences, and that language barriers can exacerbate the already difficult discussion.

Furthermore, the operating environment for groups in these countries also plays a factor, with restrictive laws – sometimes reminiscent of those in China itself – curbing the ability of environmental and labour groups to do their work.

With sufficient dedication, resources and time, this is not an insurmountable burden. The model provided by groups in Latin America – and the recommendations they attained – can be shared with communities worldwide who confront Chinese business, and who are looking for openings to engage the Chinese government. Further work in coalitions in the coming months will be important in ensuring that China accepts these promising recommendations, and takes concrete steps to improve respect for human rights by Chinese business abroad.

Regional and international civil society should create platforms to facilitate an exchange of information and strategies, driven by the needs of groups on the ground. Funders should be creative about fostering these efforts, even where concrete actions and impacts may be hard to measure.

Furthermore, governments in Asia and elsewhere should themselves take up the cause and ensure that stronger due diligence and a meaningful commitment to the UN Guiding Principles are placed squarely on the negotiating table with China, and are upheld in their own actions at home.

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